History, Treachery, and a Great Read!

I only have a cursory knowledge of this particular period of English history, but I was grateful for it as I read The Traitor's Wife. While I wouldn't say that you would have to know the time during which the Despensers ascended then suddenly fell is necessary, it would be nice to have a basic "map" in your head of who the key players are.

Higginbotham's style of including extensive historical detail to complement her storyline, while possibly boring to some, is one of my favorite aspects of this book. (I majored in history, though, so I might be biased...) She also provides a wider view of the political and social playing field by going beyond the limited lives of the main characters. Not only do we know what is happening to Eleanor, Hugh and their family, but we come to understand the repercussions their rise in power has on the whole of England.

The characterization is adequate, though not exceptional. We see both the good and the bad in the individuals who played such a significant role in the evolution of England (and France) during Edward II's haphazard reign, as interpreted by Higginbotham. While certain characters are more easy to sympathize with than others (Eleanor and her children for example), I didn't find myself deeply attached to anyone in particular.

This is a very detailed and extensively-researched novel, rich in information regarding what living in this era would have been like. I have to deduct one star from my rating, however, because while certain events described in the novel are grounded in historical fact, the way in which they occurred is very much a matter of theory. Because of this I would not blame an author for using her creative license to flesh out what is not entirely known, but Higginbotham chose what are considered to be some of the most far-fetched and unlikely theories for her plot. The most obvious example is the mystery of Edward II's death at Berkeley Castle -- was he murdered, and if so, how? Strangulation? Suffocation? Poison? While these are thought to be the likeliest theories, Higginbotham selects what is considered the most unlikely, born of gossipy rumor (no spoilers: read and find out what it is). Fair game for a work of fiction, true, but I find it to detract from what else this book is built out of.

The two negatives aside, this is an excellent medieval historical fiction novel which is well worth the read. Its shorter sequel, Hugh and Bess continues where The Traitor's Wife leaves off (though there is a portion that re-hashes some of the first book from another perspective), and is more finite in terms of viewing the historical record, focusing entirely on Hugh le Despenser and his young wife Elizabeth de Montacute. As it reads almost as an epilogue to The Traitor's Wife, I definitely suggest reading them together.